To help promote Notorious Pittsburgh, I have been fortunate enough to speak at local libraries. I enjoy sharing the stories with attendees, but I also get to hear about additional notorious events and people. I usually get asked, “Did you hear appear this person or event in your research?”
I was in Penn Hills earlier this week for a talk. Towards the end, a gentleman spoke up. He said, “If you have time, I would like to ask you about your story about Mike Kalina.” Kalina was a well known food critic for the Post-Gazette and one of the last stories I added to the book.
They story was in my notebook for a long time. I came across it while researching another one of the stories and jotted it down not sure if I wanted to add it to the book. I was originally going to include the 666 lottery scandal that was a huge notorious event in Pittsburgh. Another author was researching the story extensively with plans to release a book about it, so I decided to pull that one and include Kalina’s story instead.
This story has always been perplexing. There was significant evidence that Kalina was selling his reviews for the paper. This is a no-no in journalism. But I could never understand why. Kalina was very popular and at the time of his death by suicide was on the cusp of a national TV contract. He would have been the next food star before the plethora of celebrity chefs we have today.
All of the research done for this story was culled from newspaper reports. There are always two sides to a story and with this one, I felt there was no other way to tell it. That is until this night in Penn Hills. I believe the scales have tipped a little with the first-hand evidence and story that I am about to share.
The gentleman that asked the question about the story previously owned a restaurant with his father in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. They were looking for ways to drive visitors to their restaurant which had been there for some time. They had heard from others that if Kalina reviewed an establishment that traffic can increase as much as four-fold.
That was indeed true. Kalina was well respected for his reviews and had a large following. A good review would bring people from all over Pittsburgh to dine and could greatly help a restaurant that while still popular in the local neighborhood – may not be top of mind for the city.
They approached Kalina to see if he would review their restaurant. He, in-turn, sent over a “marketing” proposal for $5,000 that would include a review amongst other things. This was the first confirmation I have ever received directly from a restaurant that was specifically asked to pay for a review other than those cited in media stories.
The plan was a little steep for the gentleman and they politely asked if there were any other avenues available to receive a review from Kalina. A counter-proposal was offered. For $500, Kalina would put a mention of their Sunday brunch in a side column.
I am so excited when someone takes me a side and shares a story with me. I share this one with you because it brings additional context that Kalina had definitely crossed a journalism ethical line. To what extent and the reasons why are still a mystery and that makes it truly Notorious Pittsburgh.
I hope to share more stories like this that add greater details to stories included in the book or give us an opportunity to hear a new notorious event in Pittsburgh’s great history.